The childhood obesity campaign: what next?

Professor Russell Viner, in his first blog as President, considers the state of play and next steps in the campaign to tackle childhood obesity.

Welcome to what I plan will be regular blogs on important issues for all paediatricians and others interested in children and young people’s health.

The next few weeks promises the next instalment in what we hope becomes a new mini-series – episode 2 of the government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy. It may not be Game of Thrones, but we hope it will be game-changer for one of the biggest issues for modern child health. 

Childhood obesity is perhaps the biggest public health problem facing our children and young people (CYP if I may), with more than 1 in 5 children across the UK overweight or obese by the time they reach their first year of primary school. This increases to 1 in 3 children by age 11, with major inequality that appears to be worsening. Overweight is even higher amongst CYP who present to children’s health services, with concerningly high proportions overweight or obese in many paediatric clinics and in our children’s wards. 

Obesity is one of the two great epidemics facing modern children (the other is mental health problems, which will be the subject of a future blog). Tackling childhood obesity is therefore a key priority of the RCPCH, and we have been very active in lobbying government at all levels in all UK countries to be more active in obesity prevention. 

The story so far

In August 2016, the UK Government released their Childhood Obesity Plan, becoming one of the first governments to recognise the need for a national strategy for childhood obesity. 

They came in for some heavy criticism at the time from some health experts and campaigners for not being ambitious enough, however the plan included a slew of important measures, including a soft drinks industry levy (sugar levy, covering the whole of the UK) and a voluntary sugar reduction scheme plus a range of other actions (applying just to England). More recently the Government has added a voluntary calorie reduction programme.

Pile of sugar cubes

At the RCPCH, we continued to campaign heavily for additions to the plan, particularly in terms of banning advertising of junk food before the 9pm watershed (the great majority of children’s media watching is during ‘family viewing time' when junk food adverts are allowed). In this we were joined by other members of the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), a coalition of other Colleges, health charities and campaign groups concerned about obesity. 

By the end of 2017, media coverage around the childhood obesity crisis, and particularly junk food advertising, appeared to have definitely permeated the public consciousness. A consensus appeared to be building that further action was needed. For the UK Government, who had always been clear that the 2016 Childhood Obesity Plan was a foundation to build upon, this meant that politically they could begin thinking about next steps.

Pressure was added this April by publication of the first year’s results for voluntary sugar reduction by industry. Disappointingly, only one third of brands showed any decrease in sugar content, and 12% even increased the sugar in their products. Whilst it was always going to take much longer than a year to turn around this leviathan, these findings increased the pressure for further action.  

The influential Health and Social Care Select Committee, long a champion of strong action on obesity, undertook a second inquiry into childhood obesity in May. I had my first experience of Select Committees, giving evidence in a joint panel alongside the warriors of the advertising industry, although I survived without too many scars. The Select Committee Report called for further action from Government, particularly restrictions on advertising unhealthy foods for children before the 9pm watershed on broadcast (TV) and online platforms and through use of characters appealing to children. 

Next steps

A few weeks ago, Steve Brine, Public Health Minister, announced that the Government would soon be publishing the next chapter of the Childhood Obesity Plan. All government strategies are limited by political factors, and the first chapter of the plan was what was politically possible at the time (remember it was just a few months after the Brexit vote). Whilst the same is true of this new chapter we are so eagerly awaiting, it does feel that we are in a different place now, one where action on obesity has broad support across the political spectrum and therefore more decisive action is possible.

We hope that this second chapter will address many of the commitments that we have long been calling for, around reduced exposure to advertising, restrictions on price promotions, better nutritional labelling, and support for local government to restrict fast-food outlets near to schools. A new plan that provides these will get strong and public support from the RCPCH. 

Get involved!

Child shouting into megaphone

If you are interested in our advocacy work on obesity and other child health issues, join our parliamentary panel. Members can keep up to date with the lobbying work of the College, and get involved directly with campaigns by attending meetings with decision-makers, events in Parliament, and writing to their MP on a range of topics. For more information contact the public affairs team – public.affairs@rcpch.ac.uk.